Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Thursday 26th October 2017
Winner of a Judges Award as part of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for playwriting, Parliament Square is a bleak and troubling tale of one woman’s shocking breakdown as a result of misguided belief – a breakdown which eventually culminates in a terrifying act of self-inflicted violence in a public setting.
There is no doubt that acts of self-inflicted harm are going to be a complex, difficult and awkward subject matter for anyone to attempt to tackle – both in real life and in the world of theatre. Parliament Square was, therefore, already in a spot of bother before the show even began – a strong and strangely aggressive attitude was already formed, and it implored of the writer, production team and cast: if you’re going to take this on, you’d better get it right.
And there was another, much more specific reason why Parliament Square and its attempt to tackle this particular subject matter in this particular theatre had to be absolutely right. Though this play was written two years ago, it has only been a few months since St Ann’s Square (in which the Royal Exchange Theatre sits) was turned into a temporary memorial as the city strived to deal with the aftermath of the kind of issues that Parliament Square attempts to take on.
The dark and sombre mood of the plot was reflected well by the limited use of lighting, sound effects and set. In the opening scenes a rather odd-looking scattering of random household objects across the stage eventually revealed itself to be a clever metaphor – one that came to symbolise the lead character’s departure from ordinary life into what she believed was her higher purpose.
Individual performances in this show were excellent. Esther Smith plays the role of the lead character Kat, an ordinary and seemingly content woman who has decided to right the wrongs of the world. Kat hears a voice in her head, but on stage this voice is cleverly personified by Lois Chimimba – simultaneously acting as Kat’s conscience, her motivator, and ultimately as her chief tormentor. Also impressive is Seraphina Beh as Catherine, the random passer-by who witnessed what happened to Kat.
Ultimately though, there are too many elements of Parliament Square’s plot that fail to fit together. Even accounting for the presumed intention of the writer to not answer every question and to deliberately leave the audience guessing, the net result of coming away from this performance is not a set of deep philosophical questions that confound the mystery even further, it is instead much more a sense of frustration that certain parts don’t make enough sense. Why did Kat do what she did, why didn’t anyone try to find out? Why were her friends and family so forgiving? And though the show ends with a shocking twist, it doesn’t seem plausible and feels to have been inserted for the shock factor rather than as an explanation or enhancement of what has gone before.
Parliament Square is a well performed and professionally produced show that contains alluring elements of excitement and intrigue; but ultimately the plot is just not held together well enough and it thus suffers as an incoherent piece of story-telling.